Climb Sedona's Centerpiece
The standard route to the summit of Capitol Butte is starting from Dry Creek Road and ascending via the southwest ridge. This route follows a rough, intermittent social trail that varies from class 2 to class 3 mountaineering. Class 2 generally describes hiking on talus/scree, which is prominent throughout most the hike. Class 3 describes using your hands and feet to climb, and this hike has its fair share of these sections. The first quarter mile of this route is class 1, standard hiking.
Capitol Butte is notorious for causing climbers to get in over their heads, requiring expensive helicopter rescues. You don't want to be that guy or gal! Here's a few basic rules that you should follow in order to stay out of trouble.
1) Come prepared: water, snacks, first aid, ect.
2) Be aware of your surroundings at all times and use common sense.
3) Don't climb up anything you can't climb down.
4) Stay cool, calm and collected.
Now here are my more specific instructions for the nuances of this route. While the trail intermittently leads all the way to the top, you will lose sight of it on many occasions. I suggest taking a topo of the area, and study pbaenzig's official GPS route before you leave. Have a general idea of where the route should take you. If you have a GPS, upload that route and use it on the hike. When you reach the upper sections, there won't be too many places to go. You just have to read the terrain in the direct vicinity. This route never reaches class 4 status. That means that if you find yourself contemplating a move in which a slight error would result in you tumbling to a likely death: stop, backtrack, and re-evaluate the route. If it seems like you haven't seen the trail in quite a long time: stop, backtrack, and re-evaluate the route.
When I did this climb on May 6th, 2009, I met a man who had just summitted Capitol Butte for the ninth time in his life. That day was his 75th birthday. For the rest of the way up, I found myself contemplating moves with this thought: "If I was 75, would I be able to do this?" It definitely helped me re-evaluate the route in a couple of spots.
As far as sun exposure, it is noteworthy that this route is most safely done in winter, or in the morning during the hotter months. This route has a lot of sun exposure during the afternoon, although the afternoon light provides the best views of Wilson Mountain, Munds Mountain, Mitten Ridge and most other monuments to the south and east. On an 85 degree day in May, I started at 2 PM, and I was hurting after the first half mile.
Hike: From the "trailhead" at the Red Rock Pass dispensing station, you will notice two trails taking off. Take the upper one closer to the sign that says "Off Road Driving Prohibited." Don't get used to the smooth, easy to follow trail. At the first junction, turn left looking toward the butte. You will soon hit another junction at which you will turn left once again. This is where the fun starts! From here on out the trail is intermittent with loose soil and rocks, as well as overgrown vegetation.
You will ascend two smaller slickrock benches (the Bell Rock Member and Fort Apache Member respectively). After the second bench, you will notice a large cliff face looming above. On my ascent, I remember losing the trail at some point along here. Just remember that the trail curves to the left around the cliff (along the north face). You will soon hit the first real class 3 section. It can be avoided by squeezing to the left, but I suggest climbing it. There are sections that are a little more difficult later, so if you aren't comfortable with this, turn around NOW.
Next, you will ascend a bench of Coconino Sandstone (tan-buff colored sandstone, compared to the red Schnebly Hill and Hermit Formations below). You will be climbing and hiking on Coconino for the rest of the ascent. The trail follows on or just below the ridge for a bit. Careful, the trail looks like it goes by this tree, but it doesn't. Instead, turn left and scramble up this slope.
The trail gets steeper, many class 3 sections are encountered (most similar to the first, but longer). There are too many to describe in detail. Use common sense and remember that at no point should you have to move across areas with sheer drops. If you feel out of your comfort level, be safe and turn back. You'll know when you're near the top. Trails split off and criss-cross near the top, just be aware the way you came. There are two big boulders, the eastern-most one is the summit. Celebrate victory and feel free to sign the register!
Care should be taken descending as the loose rocks and soil matched with the steep grade make it easy to slip and fall.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.